La Brea Tar Pits Renovation Plan Begins Environmental Review Process

The WEISS/MANFREDI “Loops and Lenses” conceptual approach for the new La Brea Tarpits Master Plan features a bridge across the Lake Pit. Rendering courtesy of WEISS/MANFREDI.


Back in 2019, the Natural History Museums of LA County announced that it would be undertaking a major new Master Plan and renovation process for the La Brea Tar Pits, including the existing museum, excavation sites, and other parts of the 13-acre site where the institution is located.  After a short competition in which three preliminary proposals were considered, NHMLAC chose to develop the one submitted by architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi.  The proposal, still in its very early conceptual stages, is now moving forward toward an environmental review process, and this week, the parties involved held two public scoping meetings to introduce the proposal and seek community feedback on which elements should be studied for an Environmental Impact Report.  (The EIR, required by state law, considers potential effects of the project on its location and surrounding area, and potential mitigations for any elements that might be determined to have negative effects.)


Project Details


Overhead rendering of Weiss/Manfredi’s new “Loops and Lenses” renovation of the 13-acre La Brea Tar Pits site.


In her introduction to the first of two meetings yesterday meeting, NHMLAC director Lori Bettison-Varga said the La Brea Tar Pits is one of the most important paleontological sites in the United States, and provides a “50,000-year-old portrait” of Los Angeles.  But in addition to its important history, it’s also an active paleontological site, with a growing research department as well as the popular public museum.  Bettison-Varga said the current museum and laboratory facility was built 40 years ago, however, and lacks both the storage space and modern amenities that would help it continue to do its important work into the future.  She said the new Master Plan will re-imagine the site to enhance both its scientific and public service capabilities, as well as contribute to making the surrounding Miracle Mile museum district a “bucket list destination.”



Next, a short video introduction from the Master Plan’s architect/designers, Miriam Weiss and Michael Manfredi, provided a conceptual introduction to the project, which they call “Loops and Lenses” for its Mobius-strip-like design.  The architects said that considering the various elements of the Tar Pits’ work helped them realize the importance of science in designing for what promises to be a dramatic, eventful future…and led to a concept that actively ties together the museum, its active research sites, and its community spaces, indoors and out, through a system of looping pathways, with many points of entry and connection between the many different kinds of spaces on the Tar Pits campus.



John Dietler, from environmental consulting firm SWCA, continued with a more details, explaining that the project area is bordered by Wilshire Blvd. on the south, the LACMA property (also currently under re-development) on the west, Sixth Street on the north, and Curson Ave. on the east.  In the proposed design, Dietler said, the renovated museum will increase storage space by 350% over the current building’s capacity, including renovating and repurposing the three existing theater areas to provide some of that storage, and constructing two new theaters to replace the old ones.


Screen shot from Weiss/Manfredi introductory video.


The project will also expand the paleontology lab, add more classroom space, provide a new entry plaza at Wilshire and Curson, a new Pleistocene Garden, and a new Tar Bar restaurant, as well as more natural light throughout the facility.  In addition, the current entrance will be turned into a portal exclusively for school groups, and the hills around the property (popular with local children for rolling down) will be preserved.  Also, there will be a shaded outdoor classroom at the very active Pit 91 dig site (which will be turned into an interpretive center when excavations there are complete).


Screen shot from Weiss-Manfredi introductory video.



Screen shot pf the new Pit 91 outdoor classroom, from Weiss/Manfredi introduction video.


Public Comments


After SWCA’s Bobbette Biddulph explained that the development team is now seeking public input on which project elements to include and study in the environmental review process, several issues were raised by community members.

Thao Tran, a Miracle Mile resident who has been involved in a community effort to lobby for the inclusion of a new dog park in the project, asked whether or not that element is still on the table, even though it was not included in the photos or descriptions presented at the meeting. Biddulph reported that a community petition advocating for the dog park now has more than 5,000 signatures, and said the project designs are still very much in the conceptual stages, so all the details haven’t been finalized yet.  Also, NHMLAC’s Assistant Deputy Director Richard Hayden noted that the Weiss/Manfredi team has, in fact, designed dog parks before, and it may be one of the details they can look at in the next iteration of the plans.

Area resident Ann Rubin asked several questions about trees, including whether or not existing trees can be preserved in the renovations to help maintain or enhance the local shade canopy and reduce heat island effects, and whether drought-tolerant and native trees will be considered.  Biddulph said the tree plan has not been created yet, but a few trees will need to be either removed or relocated for the improvements, though the Museum wants to retain as many of them as possible.  And this is definitely something, she said, that will be included and studied in the EIR.  In addition, MHMLAC Assistant Deputy Director Richard Hayden noted that he is also a certified arborist and is already working with the environmental review team on this very subject.

Some other questions raised at yesterday’s first meeting, along with the brief answers provided by the presenters, included:

Will the remodeled area will have more limited hours and access for local residents than the current facility? 
The answer was that this is not anticipated.

Will the Tar Pit Lake and Pit 91, while perhaps more visible and accessible in the new design, also be adequately protected from improper public contact?
Yes, there will be screens, fences and other protective elements, even if they’re not yet shown in the current conceptual drawings.

Will the wild rabbits that currently populate the site have some protected habitat in the remodeled space?
Since the rabbits are not harmful to the local ecosystem, the developers can study how to either retain or safely relocate them.

Will the nighttime projection screens planned for one part of the new museum building add to “light blight” in the area?
Lighting effects will definitely be part of the EIR study.

What about bike accessibility?
The park area will likely retain the current rules about walking bikes inside the park itself, but bike parking will definitely be provided.

Will the the new spaces be safe for local residents to walk in?
NHMLC will work with its LACMA and Academy Museum neighbors to develop security plans.


Weighing In


Comments and input on what other elements community members would like to see included and studied during the environmental review process will be accepted until 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 17, via email and/or postal mail (see addresses below).  After a draft Environmental Impact Report is prepared, that document will also be opened for public input and comment before it is finalized.  And then the project will go through several other stages of development and public review before any final approval is given or any permits issued.




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About Elizabeth Fuller

Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.

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